What Legendary Coach Bear Bryant Can Teach Us About Selling

HatA team of academic researchers once asked Bear Bryant why Alabama football was so successful under his tenure.

Bear Bryant’s reply: “Because I love my players, and they love me.”

The researchers were skeptical.

Alabama football, like any team, was measured on wins and losses. The researchers theorized that the team’s won-loss record (or the amount of love they had for their coach) might not be the most useful measure or motivator for individual players. How do you measure, for example, the effectiveness of the punter or the second string tight end?

The researchers followed Bear Bryant, his coaching staff, and his players for a season. Here’s what they discovered:

For each position on the team, Bear Bryant and his staff had broken down the most important skills to their simplest steps. Every role had a hierarchy of skills. A lineman, for example, would have a series of steps he had to execute in a pass blocking scheme to put him in the right position with the proper leverage. The number, size and quickness of the steps were measured. Once a player had mastered the basic skills, he would receive a more advanced set of movements to master. If, after an appropriate amount of practice time, a player still couldn’t execute a set of movements correctly, the coaching staff would video the player. The staff would then show the player his own video and a video of a player executing the steps flawlessly. The player’s focus, for however long it took, was to master that one set of movements.

Bear Bryant and his coaches had dozens of very specific skills for every position on a football team. And they used those specific skills as metrics to ensure that each player had something to work on. Every player knew what he had to master in order to get better.

Everyone outside of the Alabama football locker room defined success by the number of games won. And they might believe that the reason Alabama football was so successful was because Bear Bryant loved his players and they loved him.

The researchers drew a different conclusion. Bear Bryant and his staff had great football teams because each player could achieve success for the day, or the week, by mastering the next set of movements required to get better. Wins and losses aside, they could see their own progress, and that’s what motivated them to keep working. Individually, those improvements probably had little to do with Alabama winning or losing a game. But collectively, they made the team better every week. And when the team didn’t perform well, instead of making a guess (and firing the punter) the coaching staff had a better idea of the right specific corrective actions to take.

For most salespeople, measuring sales volume on a monthly basis is like assessing an individual player by the team’s won-loss record.

Selling is a noisy process with lots of external factors over which you may have little control, like price, the strength of relationships between your client and your competitor, the personalities of the individual clients with whom you work, and how well your products meets a client’s core need.

We pay attention to what we measure. And when we pay attention, we notice what makes the metric improve and what makes it worsen. We get ideas to improve what we’re measuring.

So what do you measure?

Sales volume, of course, is an appropriate measure for the company as a whole and ultimately for a salesperson – over time. How much time depends on the industry you’re in and what it is you sell. If the life cycle of a sale in a business is nine months, the noise and static that influence the outcome of a sale, make annual volume a poor measure of a salesperson’s performance. Don’t confuse what you should be measuring in your sales process to what you are measured on. A good sales manager, like a good coaching staff, should measure a salesperson’s performance using different, more specific metrics than for the organization as a whole. If you determine that the leverage in your sales process is getting face-to-face meetings with new prospective clients, then measure that. Measuring is a form of reinforcement. Figure out the small steps that a salesperson needs to master to be more effective in your business, and measure those. We get more of what we reinforce.

Here’s a series of questions to help you determine where the leverage is in your process:

1. What is my sales process? How might I define all the steps I engage in?

2. What are the levers and the logjams in my sales process? What are the key things that are more likely to lead to sales? (For example, doing a demo, getting a face-to-face meeting, qualifying a prospect, getting an application signed. Or the opposite, what are the key things that derail or stop a sale or a client relationship?)

3. What specifically can I do better to influence those levers? (Or loosen the logjams?)

4. What can I measure to track my progress at doing those things better?

If you don’t figure out the leverage points in your sales process, you don’t know what to measure so you can improve. Ah, but don’t worry, when things do go wrong, and you’re 0-8, you can always fire the punter.

The ideas from this post come from Tim’s book Never Be Closing. We hope you found them useful.

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